He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” ***********************************************************************************************
Look What I've Done! The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Jesus tells them a story: The theater doors open... or... the Pharisee and the Tax Collector both go to the temple to pray. The house lights dim, and a hush falls over the expectant audience. Cue the conductor, the overture begins… something resembling the triumphal march from Aida sings from the orchestra pit, curtain up! A single spotlight follows the Pharisee to center stage as he scans his audience with great intensity- making eye contact with as many as he can. He stops confidently down stage right, puffs his chest… dramatic pause… all eyes focused where he wants them… (big breath)... and his soliloquy begins…
"I thank you, God! I thank YOU, that I am not a sinner... that I am not a sinner like... frankly... everyone else. I don’t cheat... I don’t swindle,... and I don’t extort! I’m not anything like, just in case you needed an example, God… that tax collector in the balcony! Look at all the wonderful things I’ve done! In fact, let me list them for you! I fast twice a week! Twice a week, God! And I give you, God, a tenth of my income! Not even my agent gets 10%! What a stellar example of piety and generosity I am! Thank you for making me special... for calling me righteous! "
One large dramatic swirl to show off the robe as the music swells, and then a majestic exit, stage left…
Meanwhile, in the balcony, well, not really the balcony, but beyond the balcony in what you or I would call the cheap seats… is the tax collector. He has actually moved farther back into the darkness after the Pharisee's display. And in his little corner of the nosebleed section, he hangs his head, bows as low as he can… and begins his prayer- no music… just what few words he can find…
“God have mercy on me a sinner…" and the words of his prayer sting his own ears… "God have mercy on me a sinner…” He tightens his arms around himself and rocks back and forth and beating his chest, thing… “Oh God have mercy on ME… a Sinner... God… have mercy...” He kneels in silence for who knows how long, wipes the tears from his face and he rises from his place of prayer with no applause, and no exit music… ...the end
Jesus then tells his audience, the tax collector went home justified, and not the Pharisee… “If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored." (CEV)
This is pretty straightforward stuff isn’t it? It is, except when we start to think of our own lives, the lines become blurred about who I am, or who we might be, in the story…
The Pharisee, we all know is Super Temple Guy. He knows his scripture inside and out; and his specialty is knowledge and interpretation of the law. He and the other Jewish and Roman elite were part of what we would call, the establishment- the system. And while his job may sound great, and even holy, (and in its origins it was meant to be holy), by the first century, “the elite” were known for oppressing everyone below them through unfair taxes, corruption and kickbacks... all by manipulating and/or twisting the law to make all of this abuse and corruption justifiable.
Basically the Pharisee's “job was to teach the people the interpretation of, or more accurately, the official misinterpretation of the Torah so that they would believe that this unjust way their society operated was society as God designed and intended it to be. In other words, “if you’re a good Jew, obedient to the Torah, you’ll pay your taxes and tolls and never question it”.”[i]
The tax collector, however… is not much better. And though you may not know this, the tax collector was also part of the elite class of society. However, he was on the very bottom of the elite; he held no status and was looked down on by everyone higher than he. His job paid so little that he couldn’t possibly make ends meet for his family on his salary, so he was encouraged by his superiors to extort money from the peasants. An average peasant family paid up to 83% of their income in taxes.[ii]
As to how the tax collector coerced people to give him this extra money that went toward making his life more comfortable... it's simple. The average local tax collector was also, in essence, the town bully. He took unfair advantage of the people, and was often physically abusive- though he lived among them. He was like any other hired thug you’ve seen in any gangster movie coming to collect a debt; Hollywood would call him a “leg breaker” or a “collector”. He was hated and feared equally by the people... Not a nice guy- probably little to no friends… And to be clear: the tax collector was working for the Pharisee!
So we have in essence, two “bad guys”- and both of these bad guys came to the temple to pray… (Praise God the sanctuary is open to all of us) Yet Jesus says that it was the tax collector who went home justified, or made right with God.
Perhaps because the Pharisee’s prayer was said, not to God, but to himself. His prayer was all about him; every part of the prayer was about how much he was doing and how good he was in comparison to others.
The Tax collectors prayer was humble. In first century Judaism, it was traditional for a man to pray with his head up and his hands lifted toward heaven. The tax collector bowed low. The word “humbled”, comes from the Greek, “hummus”, meaning dirt… he humbled himself before God. His prayer was simply a confession of sin and a plea for forgiveness. He admitted what he was and asked God to be merciful. He gave no excuses- he compared himself to no one- he didn’t try to even justify his actions.
Now, it’s easy at this point to identify with the tax collector; to hop on his lap and say “Hey, I want to be like you, and not like that other guy, the Pharisee… And I can make myself hummus before God!”
Why are we always wanting to take someone’s side? We’re always wanting to compare ourselves to something or someone. Except the minute we compare ourselves to one or another, or hold a desire to be one or the other, judging who is better, we become the Pharisee. And when it comes right down to it, I know I am a lot more Pharisaical than I would like to admit. There are a lot of people in this world who I tend to judge- even though I might not say it out loud. There are people I (we) have labeled, “bad people”- the ones who are on opposite sides from us- politically, socially, even religiously! And when we think of them, or perhaps come out of some 'discussion' (ahem) with them, don’t we often think, ‘Thank God I have it more right than they do….’
Truly, we don’t even have to cast such a wide net- let’s stay in the community-or our workplace, or our family… heck, some of us can stay right in our pew! For some of us, it's as close as that person who makes us nuts when they are in the room- we can’t raise our eyes to look at them because if we do, we know they will give our true feelings away- the disgust we feel when we see them. And we can pray about it till the cows come home, but something about them “rubs us the wrong way.” We may not walk out on a stage swirling our robe to declare it, but our soliloquy sings out in the sanctuary just the same.
And perhaps you're thinking, 'But didn’t Jesus tell us who had the better prayer at the end? Didn’t Jesus tell us what we should be like by letting us know how God justified the tax collector?' And my answer to you is "yes." He did. And if we are praying like the tax collector, and acknowledging who we really are, what we have done, imploring God to be merciful on us with no self justification, no scape-goating, no blame shifting, no comparison… then we too, can go home justified.
But here’s the thing… when we get up from that prayer, and wipe the tears from our face, with no exit music and no applause… we need to realize that our God isn’t about who is, "better than," "smarter than," "prettier than," "richer than," "holier than..." God does not discriminate; God does not compare us with one another. God loves us all… and loves us all equally- despite the fact that it might not make sense to me! When we get up from that prayer, we get up realizing that it doesn’t matter that another person might believe in God differently than we do, or are walking outside of what we deem holy, or righteous, or Christian behavior! We get up and we don’t think about the fact that others perhaps aren’t as “spiritual” or “grace filled” or “humble” as we are- because when we do, we put them back under the law- and take away God’s grace.
And further- the God who would bless us based on how well we keep the law, or how religious we are, is a God who could be manipulated.”[iii] A God who we could somehow control by our actions! That we could entice God to love us! It would mean that there could be a way to be right with God by something that we DO- and not based on the fact that we ARE!
I don’t want my God to be any less than omnipotent! I don’t want my God to be less than a God of complete forgiveness, complete redemption, complete grace… "God have mercy on me, a sinner…"